Located on the Pacific coast of Chile, 120 kilometres west of Santiago, Valparaíso flourished in the 1800s around a port and its narrow flats. As the city grew, it could only expand upward onto the 44 surrounding cerros or hills. “Before 1920, Valparaíso had no official plan; it’s the reason why it looks so chaotic,” says tour guide Felipe Muñoz.
In 2003, UNESCO declared Valparaíso’s historic quarter a World Heritage Site, acknowledging the city’s industrial growth at the turn of the 19th century. The port benefited from its key location along a main shipping route. During that time, its economy boomed, and foreign travellers influenced the city’s culture. The construction of the Panama Canal, finished in 1914, led to a slow decline as it diverted the maritime route.
Today, almost all of Valparaíso’s 250,000 inhabitants live in the houses piled up on the hills’ slopes. Its famous metal cable cars, or funiculars, traverse the steep inclines ferrying people to the tops of the hills and back again. The oldest cable car, Concepción, was introduced in 1883 and is still in service. The Chilean government is working on restoring a few others, so Valparaíso’s citizens and visitors can expect more opportunities to ride in the heritage elevators.
While the old cable cars show Valparaíso’s history and character, its numerous murals make for a colourful and lively city. “The city is inspiring, with the sea, the people, and the structure,” Muñoz says, explaining the profusion of paintings. Artists only need permission from the owner of the building they plan to paint, making the process much easier than in other municipalities, he adds. Maxime Cabot, a French traveller who spent three days in Valparaíso last September, came to admire the street art. “What I liked about this city is that there isn’t really a defined tour,” he says. “It’s best to get lost on the hills and chance upon the different murals one after another!”